Sediment aggregation and water quality in wildfire-affected river basins Academic Article uri icon

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abstract

  • Off-site transfer of nutrient-rich burnt soil has implications for downstream water quality. Coarsening of effective particle size (EPS) distributions in burnt material via aggregation of fines into composite particles modifies post-fire sediment and nutrient transport dynamics. Experiments were undertaken to establish temperature controls on wildfire-enhanced soil aggregation. Burnt and unburnt soil from a temperate eucalypt forest were analysed for EPS and settling velocity using a LISST-ST (Laser In Situ Scatter and Transmissometry with Settling Tube) particle size analyser. Next, samples were burnt (250–550°C) before further analysis with the LISST-ST. Settling velocities of naturally burnt soil aggregates were greater than unburnt aggregates of the same EPS. Experimental burning indicated that dense water-stable aggregates form at relatively low temperatures (250°C) probably due to distillation and carbonisation, through pyrolysis, of organic volatiles in surface litter. Under these conditions, the EPS distribution of burnt surface soil coarsens with up to 50% of the <63-μm fraction becoming aggregated. A positive relationship between ‘plant-available’ phosphorus and burn temperature was observed. Given that a large proportion of soil particulate phosphorus is associated with the <63-μm fraction, fire-related aggregation processes have potentially important implications for post-fire fine sediment and nutrient transport and storage dynamics.

publication date

  • 2009